Split peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, red lentils – they all belong to the legume family of podded plants that have been cultivated for thousands of years. Legumes have played an important role in the traditional diets of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mexican cultures and it’s within these cultures that epidemiological research has shown lowered incidence of certain chronic diseases, such as cancer and Diabetes. Let’s take a closer look at some of the health benefits and some surprising issues with legumes:
Legumes are a great vegetarian and vegan protein source, with a half cup (cooked) serving providing about 8g of protein. Soybeans, lentils and navy beans are ranked the top 3 in terms of protein content. However, legumes are incomplete protein sources because they lack one of the essential amino acids (ie your body can’t produce on its own and you need to get it from food), called methionine. To make legumes complete proteins, pair them with grains, nuts and seeds and you are set for the day.
FIBER & GLYCEMIC INDEX (GI)
Beans and lentils are an excellent source of dietary fiber, with 1 half cup serving providing about 4g of soluble and insoluble fiber. What’s even better is that they also have a low Glycemic Index, which means they will be broken down and released into your blood stream slowly, giving you steady energy without the crash and burn from high GI foods like sugar and many processed foods. And since most of us are lacking in the fiber department (we should be eating 30+ grams per day), adding legumes to your diet can help to get your daily dose up there.
Beans are an excellent source of folate, which is an important B-vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects in the developing fetus, as well as being crucially important for methylation reactions in the body (think detoxification, neurotransmitter production, protection of DNA, and hormonal regulation). Legumes are also a good source of iron, although absorption is limited in the gut, so pair it with some Vitamin C in the form of fruit for increased absorption. Legumes are also a good bioavailable source of zinc, which is important for skin and immune health. Finally, legumes such as soy beans are also a good source of calcium, which as we know is important to the development of healthy teeth and bones.
Beans, Beans, The Magical Fruit…
Many epidemiological studies have shown an inverse relationship between legume intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary artery disease – the more people consumed, the less risk of these heart diseases they had. This was attributed to the phytochemicals (plant chemicals) and fiber content of legumes. Studies have also shown that the the soluble fiber in legumes helps to lower total cholesterol and LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels, which in turn decreased the risk of hardening arteries.
Legumes are an excellent source of dietary fiber, which helps enhance water absorption in the colon and prevent constipation. Keeping things moving along in your gut helps your body’s daily detoxification system and also helps prevent putrefaction in the colon (think food rotting in your colon-gross!)
Beans also contain a wide range of cancer-fighting plant chemicals, specifically isoflavones and phytosterols, which are found primarily in soy beans. Although the research is inconclusive, there is some data to suggest that soy intake is associated with a decreased risk for pre-menopausal breast cancer.
Because legumes are low GI, the help to regulate blood sugar levels, which is crucial for the management of Diabetes as well as helping to prevent it. Studies have shown that people who consumed a high GI diet were 40% more likely to develop Diabetes than people consuming a low GI diet. Legumes can thus be an important food for individuals with Diabetes or at an increased risk of developing it.
Some Issues To Consider
People suffering from depression who are on Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitor (MAOI) medications must be aware that certain legumes, like the fava bean, contain a high amount of the amino acid tyramine, which can interact with the medication and cause an increase in blood pressure. Other foods to be cautious of are aged cheeses, fermented cabbage (sauerkraut and kimchee), and cured meats.
INTERFERENCE WITH VITAMIN & MINERAL ABSORPTION
Due to the phytic acid content, legumes have the ability to disrupt the absorption of certain minerals and vitamins, such as vitamin D, B12, and beta-carotene. The heat from cooking inactivates the phytate though, making your absorption better, but it’s still a good idea to get plenty of red, yellow, and dark green vegetables, as well as lean animal protein to compensate for any nutrients lost from the legume binding it.
…THE MORE YOU EAT, THE MORE YOU TOOT
Perhaps one f the main reasons why people shy away from legumes is the embarrassing gas and flatulence that can occur with consuming them. You can help decrease this phenomenon by changing the water several times during the soaking and cooking process, and always rinsing canned beans. Adding herbs like fennel and caraway, or combining cooked legumes with an acidic food, might also help prevent flatulence.
If you are looking for an easy way to incorporate legumes into your diet, then look no further than The Salad Bar Maastricht as they are now serving delicious soups featuring these healthy little beans. Try their Moroccan Lentil Soup – a perfect winter, feel-good option.
To Your Abundant Health!
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